This post explains what Bonfire Night is, and why it is still observed in the UK after more than 400 years of celebration.
You’ll hear it referred to by many different names: Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night or even Guy Fawkes Night. But, they are all one and the same. On the evening of 5th November, people around the country gather to light bonfires and set off fireworks. Pet owners are advised to keep their animals safely indoors away from the noise. Sweets like Bonfire Toffee and toffee apples are passed around. Young children take part too, excitedly waving sparklers about, trying to spell their names in the cold night air.
This is as quintessentially British a celebration as you’ll find anywhere – something that kids look forward to for months. So with all this family-inclusive fun it may surprise you to know that Bonfire Night is held to mark a failed assassination plot. Indeed, if the conspirators plan had succeeded, they would have blown up the Houses of Parliament killing the King and his ministers in the process.
The Gunpowder Plot
Remember, remember the fifth of November,Children’s rhyme about the plot, Notes and Queries (1857)
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
For I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy, tis our intent
To blow up the king and his parliament.
Three score barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s providence he got catched
With a dark lantern and burning match.
A stick and a stake,
For King George’s sake!
And a rope and a cart
To hang Bonyparte!
Pope! Pope! Spanish Pope!…
Holla, boys, holla, make your voice ring!
Holla, boys, holla, God save the King!
Hip, hip, hoor-r-r-ray!
At its core, the Gunpowder Plot came down to a difference in religious beliefs. England had been a Protestant country since King Henry VIII’s reformation in 1532. But, not everyone was happy with the new state religion – or the way that Catholics were being targeted and their priests executed.
73 years later, a group of Catholic activists decided to take matters into their own hands. In many ways it was an act of desperation. Life for Catholics was marred by persecution in England, and they were unable to worship freely. They believed if the current King James I was killed – along with his ministers – there might be a good chance of turning the country back towards Catholicism and Rome. Or, at the very least, making things more tolerable for Catholics.
So, Robert Catesby and his 12 fellow conspirators arranged for 36 barrels of gunpowder to be smuggled beneath the Houses of Parliament, ready to be ignited once the King and his ministers were in the room above.
How the plot was foiled
One of the conspirators sent a letter of warning to Lord Monteagle. The Catholic nobleman had plans to attend the Opening of Parliament and would undoubtedly have been killed during the ceremony by the planned blast. Today, many historians believe that it was Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Francis Trensham, who betrayed the plotters.
“My Lord…I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this Parliament for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time…though there be no appearance of any stir yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them”Part of the message sent to Lord Monteagle
Rather than destroy the letter – as requested by the anonymous sender – Lord Monteagle immediately took it to the Earl of Salisbury, the King’s most trusted minister.
Now, here’s the crazy part. The plotters found out about the betrayal, but decided to go ahead with their plan anyway! It was thought that the King’s men just weren’t taking the letter seriously. Given this seeming scepticism, the conspirators felt safe to proceed with the plan.
Unfortunately for Guy Fawkes, he was discovered red-handed in the undercroft (cellar) beneath parliament the night before the planned explosion.
What happened to the plotters?
Once it was clear the plan had failed the plotters fled for their lives. The leader of the conspiracy, Robert Catesby, tried to salvage what he could, urging English and Welsh Catholics to join him in an uprising. But, it never really got off the ground. Catesby and three others were killed in a shoot-out with officials. Over the next few days, most of the conspirators were either arrested, or killed – although it’s worth noting that Robert Winter managed to last more than 2 months on the run, before finally being caught.
The remaining eight conspirators were questioned for months in the Tower of London – with the King sanctioning the torture of Guy Fawkes in order to extract a confession. The men were eventually hung, drawn and quartered as punishment for high treason. It was a hideous and prolonged way to die.
If life had been full of prejudice for Catholics before the Gunpowder Plot, things became much worse, once it had been quashed. Catholics were viewed with suspicion and mistrust. They had to swear a loyalty oath to the King and many laws were put in place curtailing their freedom. It wasn’t until 1829 when the Catholic Emancipation Act went into force and they were given back their legal protections that Protestants enjoyed as a matter of course.
Today, there is an annual commemoration of the failed coup on 5th November. You should be able to find an official fireworks event near you, if you do a quick Google search. But, many UK residents choose to build their own bonfires and set off their own fireworks in their gardens or on appropriate land. You may also sometimes see a figure being burnt on top of people’s bonfires. This is an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and traditionally it is made by children local to the area before being set alight on 5th November! Kids will make the Guy several days before Guy Fawkes Night. They’ll then take it door-to-door raising money for fireworks.
Another consequence of the failed Gunpowder plot is the annual Guy Fawkes search. The night before the Opening of Parliament a ritualistic search is made of the area underneath the Houses of Parliament. The photo below shows once such reenactment.
And, of course, the image of Guy Fawkes is displayed beyond Bonfire Night; it’s also used by activists worldwide today. Since the now infamous mask worn by the protagonist in the film V for Vendetta, a stylized version of Guy’s face has been used for everything from anonymously protesting against the Church of Scientology, all the way to spreading the concept of Veganism.
So, after learning the truth behind Bonfire Night, do you plan on celebrating it in the UK? Let me know in the comments below.
For more British history check out our ‘history section‘.